Among the issues battering the NFL Shield in recent days and years have been safety concerns surrounding concussions and other injuries that have debilitated former players at an early age.
The league and groups such as USA Football have responded by implementing education and safety programs to try and stem the decline in participation at the youth level in recent years.
Well, they might have a poster boy for their cause in West Point sophomore starting safety Steven Johnson, a future U.S. Army Lieutenant.
Johnson played only one year of high school football, but he gained recruiting interest and committed to Army. He’s broken into the Black Knights’ playing rotation as a backup field safety and ranks among the team’s leading tacklers two games into the season.
“It wasn’t my plan to play college football, but my senior year I decided to go out there and play with my friends and help the team,” Johnson said. “I had senior teammates helping me learn. I was fortunate to get a couple of offers out of high school, and I made the right decision to come here".
“I try to make the most out of each practice to be a quicker learner and to be very coachable. I do what the coaches tell me. I think that’s why I’ve had a little bit of success. I’ve been blessed to have good coaches and teammates who have mentored me.”
So far he’s sixth – behind all starters -- in tackles with 10. He was second on the team in last week’s 35-0 loss at Stanford with 5.5, a sign he’s earning more playing time as the Black Knights (1-1) prepare for their third game against Wake Forest (1-2) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at BB&T Stadium in Winston-Salem.
The 6-foot, 191-pounder from Newburgh, N.Y., says the foundation of his success was his high school coach, veteran Bill Bianco.
“He’s been there a long time,” Johnsons said. “He loves the game of football and doing things for the city. I remember when the season was over he spent a lot of time trying to find a college for kids to reach their dreams. I wouldn’t be here with my high school coach.”
His message and story is one to take note of by the NFL and USA Football.
Johnson helped Newburgh Free Academy to a state runner-up finish played at the Syracuse Carrier Dome. He received recruiting interest from Football Championship Subdivision schools such as Albany, Southern Connecticut State, New Hampshire and Monmouth. Army was his only Football Bowl Subdivision offer.
He spent a year at the US Army Prep School in 2013 and saw limited time as a West Point freshman last year.
“I’m excited I’m able to make a contribution,” he said. “The coaches have trusted me and allowed me to play. I’m enjoying my college experience as long as I can.”
Johnson’s tackle total is both good and bad news. The good is his contribution; the bad news is linemen are making too many tackles to bring through runners getting through the line of scrimmage.
Army was at a big size disadvantage up front at Stanford, and the Cardinal used their power to average 6.2 yards a carry with 199 for the game. Stanford also balanced its offense with 216 yards passing.
But Army’s players know they can’t use lack of size as an excuse. They know they will be outmanned in other games.
“We have to be concerned with execution more than worry about size,” Johnson said. “We pride ourselves on working hard to execute each play call. That’s how we have to make our money week in and week out.”
Although he’s playing a game of catchup to learn football’s X’s and O’s and Army’s schemes, Johnson doesn’t have regrets about not taking football up earlier. He also doesn’t wonder if more football experience might have landed more recruiting interest from FBS schools.
“I’ve thought about that a little, but there are injuries and other things that can happen,” he said. “You can’t predict where you well be then or now. West Point opened up for me and that’s been a blessing. I don’t think about other schools that might have recruited me if I had played longer in high school. I’m really happy with where I am on this team.”